Friday, August 21, 2015

This will be my last entry in the blog, "St. Mark's Vineyard", as I leave St. Mark's so that someone else to take up the challenge of cultivating the fruit of the Spirit in what is St. Mark's parish community.

For five years, we have labored together in this vineyard. In many ways, the fruit has been harvested and new vines planted. But like any vineyard, to produce good fruit, it must always be well tended - and remain connected to our Lord Christ, the True Vine. We, indeed, are but branches of his divine life as it flows into the fruit we bear for the world.

In these years we have done much.

  • We have re-visioned our call to ministry around that great jewel which is the Jubilee Ministry Center at St. Mark's. It was a grand undertaking and itself has borne much fruit. Mother Hubbard's Cupboard serves more people than it ever did. Parishioners' Outreach continues to meet needs no one else will tend to and shows special kindnesses such as the Bach-to-School efforts soon to be celebrated with "Backpack Sunday." Folks of a Seasoned Age continues to offer and to explore new ways of helping the "AARP Crowd" in our community find meaningful activity, whether socially, educationally, or spiritually. Breaking Bread Together remains a much looked forward-to event by members of the community as it provides a great meal, but more importantly, fellowship and an experience of intentional hospitality that is consistent with the promise of our baptismal covenant to "seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself." Environmental Stewardship reminds us almost daily that stewardship is about ALL of God's gifts to us, not only about church finances -- especially the beauty of creation that we so easily access in our dear Juniata Valley.
  • We have entered a period of preparation "Toward A Third Century of Ministry" by looking at the legacy we received from prior generations and preparing it for future disciples who will worship, work, and play within these walls. The Church and the parish hall have both been patched and painted. Natural means of ventilation have been restored and enhanced by using their original design and adding new technologies where available. The public areas of the parish house have been cleaned and painted, flooring repair or replaced and more -- to be sure our environment is at once secure and inviting. 
  • Not all of those preparations were physical, though. We also created the means by which pastoral care will be exercise whether or not there is a clergy person available -- and when there is, the level of care will be deepened and broadened. By establishing the beginnings of a Pastoral Care Team (with its own coordinator) and enrolling the parish in The Stephen Ministries (a nationally recognized training and resource center for pastoral care), we have assured that the healing touch of Christ will continue to be offered in season and out to all who are in pastoral need. 
  • And all of this was tended while seeking to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for the Word of God through bible study, Church School, special seasonal programming, and our worship. Personal and communal prayer has deepened and helped us to grow deep roots in the life of Christ. 
There is much, much more. Vestry received an extensive report at their last meeting. And part of that report was a reminder that although we may have moved forward on a great number of things, there still remains much to be accomplished. As it is, the work of the kingdom is never complete (or at least until we see our Lord Christ at the end of time). That work continues unabated and cannot rely on one or another person. It is in that spirit that I write this last installment concerning the work of the vineyard at St. Mark's. After each harvest, vines need to be pruned and dressed for the next crop. I pray that you will rise to the occasion - to become workers in bringing the next harvest into the Lord's winepress. 

My prayer for you now is simple. It is a prayer that I heard at my ordination and was used again when Bishop Baxter installed me as your Rector in 2010. It is adapted from St. Paul's Letter to the Philippians: “May God who has begun this good work in you bring it to fulfillment.”

Signing off in the love of the heart of Christ,
Father David

Sunday, July 5, 2015

In the end, it isn’t about winners or losers

Well, it’s done. The Supreme Court has ruled that same-sex couples have the same right to marry as opposite-sex couples and The Episcopal Church has moved to allow the celebration of the marriages of same-sex couples in its parishes. One thing to note, however, is that although the timing is merely coincidental (TEC has been considering this in one way or another through several triennia) the decisions are not unrelated.

Commentators have focused often on the sea change in attitudes represented in polls taken over the last ten years or so – ever since Massachusetts moved to make same-sex marriage legal in its jurisdiction. That change may have occurred in part because of the willingness of more and more self-identified homosexual people to emerge from “the closet” and show themselves to the world often as good citizens, hard-working contributors to the economy, and even model members of their local communities. This same “coming out” also forced many of their families and friends to recognize that they had good and healthy relationships with someone who is “other” than they – even if they did not like the fact that their son/daughter/friend was gay. As often happens when individuals consider societal “others,” the distinction and prejudices begin to diminish when they are enfleshed and made real in the person of someone we know and love.

The legal arguments – both civil and canonical – may have focused on the justice issues involved. Nonetheless the real driving force behind attitudinal change represented by these decisions is the incarnation or enfleshment of an idea in real people. When we look into the eyes of an anguished young person who has been marginalized by bullies because they seem “different,” when we seek to comfort someone who has lost the most significant person in his or her life but is not allowed to make the final arrangements they discussed in the intimacy of their home, when we consider the economic disadvantage wrought by a tax code that would not recognize the joining of fiscal and financial resources over a long period of years for no other reason than the law forbade it – then we begin to understand the impact of inequality in this regard. This is at the heart of the Supreme Court’s reasoning.

In our Church communities, when we see two people exercise deep care and concern for one another “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, in richness and in poverty” but refuse to acknowledge that they have joined themselves for the present and for the future in a covenant not unlike others except for their gender, we cut ourselves off form the representation of God’s deep and abiding love for us that comes in the recognition of their mutual “joy and affection.” This is at the heart of TEC’s decision to allow the “sacramentalization,” that is, the recognition, of God’s work in the lives of deeply committed and covenanted couples.

So how should we, and the Christian community as a whole, respond to these actions? We could begin by talking about what marriage means to us, and to reflect on Justice Anthony Kennedy's statement in the court's majority opinion that “It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves." We can talk about the dignity of same-sex couples and how we can treat them with respect. We can talk about how we may move forward as a church and society by respecting the laws of the land and the different viewpoints of people in our communities and in our own church, always exercising the principles enshrined in our baptismal covenant “to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” even when we disagree. To those who do disagree with the Court and with TEC, I simply offer the counsel of Gameliel: “If this . . . undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God.”

In the end, it isn’t about winners or losers. It is about finding the will of God and following it to the best of our ability.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Why me? Why Sunday?

When I was a kid, I was taught that we had to go to church was because God said so: “Keep holy the Sabbath.” That kind of reasoning works well with children. However, once we mature, we move beyond mere “rule keeping” to a point where we decide to act according to “higher values.”  When it came to keeping Sabbath, I realized that its purpose was not to please God – God didn't need my prayers or my worship – but what Jesus taught: that Sabbath practices were made for our good. With that in mind, I thought I would share with you some thoughts about why we gather as a Church community on "the Lord's Day," and how we might better fulfill God's purposes in this great gift.
"Back in the day" society reinforced Sabbath keeping by things like "blue laws," which forbade general commerce. Most stores were closed and business was generally not conducted. Slowly, these restrictions were relaxed, especially in the area of retail sales.  About the only remaining restriction in Pennsylvania is in auto sales! (Why this remains a restriction baffles me, to be sure!) This came about, in part, because, in our increasingly diverse society, not everyone's Sabbath observance was Sunday. Jewish people observe Saturday. Muslims observe Friday. And some religious traditions don't have a formal Sabbath at all.
To be sure that we did not favor one religion over another (the heart of our First Amendment religious freedoms), we began to take a more secular approach. Even so, Sunday remains for many people a day off from work. However, because of the availability of so many more activities, it has also become a day for doing many things we can't do during our regular work week. Its specialness has eroded into a day of convenience for errands and other things we can't fit to in our busy lives.   
But this is where we have run into a bit of trouble: the notion of a Sabbath day - a day set aside for family, for friends, for God -- has transformed into a day of unscheduled activity.
Regrettably, too often family and friends have given way to lawns and sports. And God? For many people, well, "God will understand how busy we are."
Actually God DOES understand - that's exactly why he gave us the opportunity for Sabbath-keeping. As Genesis puts it, "then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done."
By now, we all understand that God doesn't "get tired" or "need" to take a nap. What the Genesis story is telling us is that we do! Scripture recounts how God rested to teach us that a time to rest from the busy work of acting as God’s partners in creating God’s kingdom is a good thing. That brings us to the present matter.
Over the last several months, attendance at Sunday common worship has been declining in our parish. This has become a great concern of mine. The concern grows out of a deep conviction that this may be a symptom of a spiritual malaise that might be settling on our parish family.
"But with all this talk of Sabbath rest, Father, why would you think to discuss yet one more activity for us to consider?" Good question. But I believe there is a good answer that is thoroughly consistent with and deeply rooted in this notion of Sabbath rest. In fact, I believe there are five good reasons to make worship in common a part of our Sabbath observance. Let’s call them the Five A’s of Sabbath-Keeping:  

During the rough and tumble of the week, the hard knocks of life in our broken world can disorient us about what’s truly important. We need our common prayer and worship to clear our head, to recalibrate our spirit, and to jumpstart our weary heart.

A second reason is the dynamic of community — which can provide us with assurance of the love and support of others in our daily lives. The heroes we encounter in life became heroes in part because they participated in faithful communities that fostered and strengthened their values and beliefs. As humans, we were not made to stand solo with no fellows. God made us for community – for one another. Remember that it was God who said that it is not good for us to be alone (Genesis 2) and Jesus showed us that the best way to remain connected to him was to be connected to one another (John 15). It is when we join together to hear and reflect on God's word and to share at the Lord's Table that we make sure we follow this wisdom.

Common prayer plays an indispensable part in our sanctification — that is, our progressive growth in conforming ourselves to the image of Christ (Romans 8). Common prayer is not only for our “upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (1 Corinthians 14), but also for us to behold Jesus together, as “we all . . . are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3). There are times — and we may already have experienced them — when the Holy Spirit takes the Scripture read, the prayer spoken, the chorus sung, or the truth preached and presses it right to the point of our need in a way that not merely informs our Christian walk, but heals our flagging spirits.
 Accepting Another’s Leading

One important distinction between common and private prayer is the place of our initiative. Common worship reminds us that our faith is fundamentally a grace, that it is received, not taken to ourselves on our own initiative. In private devotions, we lead ourselves. In common worship, we’re made to receive the leading of others. In private prayer, we’re in the driver’s seat: we decide what passage to read, when to pray, what to pray, how long to linger and meditate, what songs to listen to or sing, and what applications to consider. But in common prayer, we’re led to respond. Others preach and pray and select the songs and choose how long to linger in each element. By positioning ourselves to receive – we open ourselves to the Spirit's leading. And where the Spirit may lead, we never really know until it happens (John 3).
 Accentuated Joy

Last, but not least, is the heightened experience of worship in the presence of others. Our own awe is accentuated, our own adoration increased, and our own joy doubled when we worship God together. A Swedish proverb says, “A shared joy is a double joy.” Like when we take delight in expanding our circle of friends, in common worship the joy of deeper, richer and greater adoration and awe expands as we glorify God together with others. Thus, the secret of our joy in common prayer and worship is not only a preoccupation with God and God’s glory but also the happy awareness that we are not alone in having our souls enriched in God’s life.
I hope these reflections provide you with some food for thought. If you are regularly meeting with us for common prayer and worship, I pray that these thoughts will deepen your commitment. If you have not been with us on a regular basis, I pray that these thoughts may have sparked a new insight that would move you to join with us again. In any event, know that I continue to pray for you and for each and every member of our parish family - and that my love for you is the love of Christ that abides in us all.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Are we not called to do the same?

As our attention in our Lenten journey begins its sweeping turn toward consideration of the passion and death of our Lord, I have turned to the crucifix that hangs in my room as a point of concentration. It was given to me in a joyful moment, my installation as rector/pastor at St. Mark's, by people whom I love, my in-laws (yes, I love my in-laws!). 
The question arose within me this morning about what I "do" for Christ in light of what Christ "has done" for me. How much of what I "do for Christ" do I, in reality, do for myself? I spend many, many hours in the various tasks of ministry - everything from writing sermons to pondering over finances. But how much of it do I really do for Christ? And how much do I really "do" for myself?
How much of all that I do would I do if I were not paid to do it? How much of it would I do if no one would notice that it was done, in other words, how much do I do to find a sense of affirmation whether from self or from others? I am not sharing the answers to these questions with you here. The answers are the stuff of my private conversation with God in these Lenten days. However, I share the questions because I think they are questions that we all need to ask of ourselves from time to time.
As I continue to ponder them, the answer is colored by this consideration: how much of my time and energy is spent seeking to avoid the pains and sufferings of my life that actually cannot be avoided, much less, taking on the pain and sufferings of others that I encounter in the world? The crucifix on my wall elicits that query. Jesus, after all, did just that. He took on himself the "sins of the world." Am I not called, especially as a priest, to do the same? 
Each week, I lay hands upon the sick. Often I am deeply aware of the specific malady afflicting those seeking healing. As I do so, I consider whether I am willing to take malady on myself so that the one seeking healing may be relieved. Jesus, after all, did just that. He took on himself the "sins of the world." Am I not called, especially as a priest, to do the same? 
Every day people come to the parish seeking relief from poverty in various forms. Rather than just giving them "a little to help them get by" am I willing to give up what I have so that they can have enough? Jesus, after all, did just that. He took on himself the "sins of the world." Am I not called, especially as a priest, to do the same? 
So, as I focus on the crucifix on my wall, what exactly has Jesus done for me? For us? Are we not called to do the same?